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Daryl Morey Made A Lot Of Trades. How Much Did They Help The Rockets?


Daryl Morey’s 13-year tenure as general manager of the Houston Rockets ended the way most things end: badly. The Rockets bowed out of the 2020 playoffs in the second round, falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers in a gentleman’s sweep that didn’t feel all that close, with each of their final three losses coming by double digits.

The next day, Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni informed the team that he would not seek a contract renewal and would instead enter the free-agent market. A month and two days later, Morey himself stepped down from his post — even after Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta had previously said the GM’s job was “safe.”

Though the end was ugly, there were many successes on the journey. The Rockets posted the second-best record in the NBA during Morey’s tenure, winning 61.5 percent of their regular-season games. They made 10 playoff appearances and two trips to the conference finals, scoring the eighth-most playoff wins (51) of any team in the league along the way. They consistently pushed the league forward with innovations on the floor. They shattered records (several times over) for 3-pointers made and attempted, revolutionizing what it meant to be an efficient NBA offense.

But there were also distinct disappointments. Houston was one of just two teams with 50-plus playoff victories during Morey’s tenure that did not also win a championship. The Rockets of recent vintage went all-out to defeat the Golden State Warriors but fell short in two series — once when Chris Paul injured his hamstring and missed the final two games and once despite Kevin Durant suffering a calf injury and sitting out the clincher.

Morey is most famous, though, for his role as a pioneer in the basketball analytics movement. Morey’s adherence to the math behind basketball shone through most notably in the team’s shot selection (which consisted almost exclusively of 3-pointers and attempts in the immediate area around the rim), but it also extended outside the confines of the hardwood and into the executive suite. Morey firmly believed that a team needs multiple star players to truly contend for a championship, and he relentlessly pursued that structure throughout his tenure.

“People say, ‘They’ll do and trade anything,’” Morey once told the Elyria (Ohio) Chronicle-Telegram. “Yeah, we will. Until you have your foundational players, your franchise should be in a state of flux. You need to keep trading and moving players until you get to that point.”

When he said that, he really meant it. In 13 seasons as general manager, Morey completed a whopping 77 trades. Only one NBA team — the Philadelphia 76ers, who at one point were helmed by Morey’s protégé, Sam Hinkie — made more swaps during that time.

In those deals, Morey acquired 27 draft picks and sent 37 out the door. He brought in 70 players and sent 72 packing — including 30 players that made it on both of those lists.

He traded and/or acquired the rights to Ukrainian guard Sergei Lishouk five times. He traded cash for a draft pick that was eventually used on Australian forward Brad Newley (who never played in the NBA), then traded Newley’s rights a full decade later. He made three different deals involving the draft pick that became Chandler Parsons, including two on the same day. He executed quite possibly the funniest trade in NBA history, sending Patrick Ewing Jr. to the New York Knicks in exchange for the rights to Frédéric Weis.

But was all the moving and shaking worth it? Did Morey’s wheeling and dealing actually add value to the team? Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, a whole lot.

Most crucially, each of the five pieces Morey packaged together to acquire James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder (Kevin Martin, Jeremy Lamb, the Nos. 12 and 32 overall picks in 2012 and a top-20 protected pick in 2014) was acquired in a previous trade. Just that, right there, made everything worth it. But Morey added value beyond the Harden deal.

How much value? We’re glad you asked, because we actually can quantify it. To do so, we turned to Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). For each of Morey’s trades, we tabulated the following:

  • The VORP produced during the remainder of that specific tenure with the Rockets by players the Rockets acquired and the VORP produced during the remainder of their tenure with the specific team to which the Rockets traded them by players the Rockets traded away.
  • The VORP produced during their tenure with the Rockets by any player whose draft rights the Rockets acquired and the VORP produced during their tenure with the specific team to which the Rockets traded them by any players whose draft rights the Rockets traded away.
  • The projected VORP of all future draft picks traded to the Rockets and the projected VORP of all future draft picks traded away by the Rockets.

Take Morey’s first significant trade: In 2007, the Rockets sent the draft rights to Vassilis Spanoulis to the San Antonio Spurs along with a 2009 second-round pick and cash in exchange for Jackie Butler and the draft rights to Luis Scola.

Spanoulis never played in the NBA and thus never produced any VORP. The 2009 second-round pick eventually landed at No. 53, which we could project would be worth just over 0.1 VORP. Butler never actually played a game with the Rockets because he was waived at the end of training camp, but Scola stayed in Houston for five seasons and produced 4.7 VORP during his tenure. Subtract 0.1 (No. 53 pick) from 4.7 (Scola), and Morey added 4.6 VORP for the Rockets with the deal.

There were some other true gems along the way: a 2009 three-team trade in which the Rockets sent Rafer Alston to Orlando and acquired Magic forward Brian Cook and Grizzlies guard Kyle Lowry (plus-5.7 VORP); a 2010 three-team deal with the Knicks and Kings in which Houston acquired Kevin Martin, Hilton Armstrong, Jordan Hill, Jared Jeffries, the right to swap 2011 first-round picks with New York and a protected future first-round pick in exchange for Tracy McGrady, Carl Landry, Joey Dorsey and cash (plus-5.4); and a 2011 trade of Aaron Brooks to the Suns for Goran Dragić and a future first-round pick (plus-3.4).

There were also some clunkers. The 2012 swap that sent Lowry to the Raptors for guard Gary Forbes and a protected first-round pick comes to mind (minus-27.5 VORP). So does the 2008 draft-day deal that saw the Rockets acquire the rights to Donté Greene and Dorsey, plus a 2009 second-round pick, in exchange for the rights to Nicolas Batum (minus-15.9).

Perform the same calculation for each of Morey’s trades, though, and the Rockets came out ahead by 34.8 VORP. Think of it this way: In his 13-year tenure as Rockets GM, Morey added almost the same value over replacement player via trade that Lowry did on the court (35.5).

The significant majority of the value Morey generated via trade came in the Harden deal. To date, Harden has produced 58.2 VORP for the Rockets. Martin produced 1.6 VORP during his time in OKC, and Lamb produced 1.3. The Nos. 12, 32 and 24 picks could be projected for around 4.8 VORP, meaning the Rockets have so far won this trade by 50.3 VORP. That’s just about as good as it gets. It’s a career-making trade.

Morey’s efforts to secure Harden a second star, though, were largely less successful. The first and arguably worst attempt was the signing of Dwight Howard. Howard bristled at a perceived lack of touches, his back injuries accelerated his physical decline, and his personality clashes with Harden accelerated his ignominious exit from Houston.

The Rockets thought they had a Chris Bosh signing lined up in 2014 and traded away a future first-round pick to offload Jeremy Lin’s contract and open up the necessary cap space, but Bosh elected to stay with the Heat at the last minute. Bosh’s spurning Houston meant the Rockets played three more seasons before finding Harden a proper second star: Chris Paul.

That deal worked about as well as could be expected for Houston on the floor: The 2017-18 and 2018-19 Rockets are two of the 14 most efficient offenses in NBA history, and the team made the conference finals in 2018. But it was actually a loser by VORP (minus-9.8 and counting) because three of the pieces Morey sent to the Clippers became key rotation pieces in L.A.: Patrick Beverley, Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams.

And Paul’s reported falling-out with Harden motivated the Rockets to ship him out last year, dumping his contract on the Thunder for the even-more-onerous contract of Russell Westbrook and sacrificing two future first-round picks (2024 and 2026) and two pick swaps (2021 and 2025) just to do it. Paul then outplayed Westbrook in the players’ first seasons with their new teams, and now that Morey will no longer be in charge of building the Rockets’ future, it’s entirely possible that the picks he traded will end up being more valuable than he projected they’d be when he sent them to Oklahoma City.

In the end, Morey’s tenure as general manager largely followed the trajectory of the Rockets as a franchise, which isn’t all that surprising. He spent years meticulously accumulating assets without ever bottoming out, hoping against hope that he could eventually pounce on a chance for the type of superstar who could lead the team to championship contention.

He eventually found the right player at the right price, and he hit his shot so far out of the park that it might actually have been attached to a rocket. He then nailed moves for supporting players, like trading for Trevor Ariza in 2014 (plus-9.9 VORP); drafting Clint Capela and elevating him to the starting lineup after letting Howard walk; rebounding from being rebuffed by Andre Iguodala by signing P.J. Tucker in 2017; and signing quality role players like Luc Mbah a Moute, Gerald Green, Nenê, Austin Rivers, Ben McLemore and Danuel House (for the last one, bubble indiscretions notwithstanding).

But the big post-Harden moves didn’t quite work out — or at least, they didn’t achieve the desired result. Howard was a bad fit. Bosh changed his mind. Ryan Anderson had a couple of great shooting seasons but eventually became unplayable on defense. Eric Gordon had three years of good health before his body failed him again this season. Paul and Harden couldn’t get over the hump. Westbrook got injured, tested positive for COVID-19 and wasn’t himself in the bubble.

Now, Morey has moved on. Eventually, the Rockets will as well. They’ll hire a new GM, find a new coach, swap out some players, send draft picks flying around the league — all in an effort to climb the mountaintop for the first time since 1995. But for the first time in more than a decade, they won’t have one of the league’s most prolific dealmakers calling the shots.

Neil Paine contributed research.



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Don’t Tell Derrick Henry That Running Backs Don’t Matter


NFL running backs have had a rough go of it recently, with more and more evidence building for the fungibility of the position. As my colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote last week, 2020 has provided even more examples of high-profile RBs being replaced by unheralded backups who don’t miss much of a beat. It’s not that running backs do nothing to help their teams win — leaguewide rushing expected points added (EPA) per game is currently the highest it’s been since at least 2006 — but that rushing success is dictated by teammates and coaching as much as by the player carrying the ball.

Still, sometimes you have to admire a good, old-fashioned rushing performance in the mold of history’s greatest RBs — and that’s exactly what Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans is giving us this season. Henry led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,540 yards on the ground (102.7 per game) to go with 16 touchdowns, but he’s improving on those numbers so far in 2020. After tearing through the Houston Texans’ defense on Sunday for 212 yards (!) and two touchdowns, Henry is once again leading the league in yards with 588 — or 83 more than any other rusher in football.

If he could keep this up over the full season, Henry’s current 117.6 yards-per-game pace would rank 17th all-time, sandwiched between Barry Sanders’s 1994 season and Shaun Alexander’s 2005. We haven’t seen a player average so many yards per game in a season since Adrian Peterson did it eight years ago en route to winning MVP honors.

In fact, we are unexpectedly witnessing one of the best performances ever by a RB in back-to-back seasons. Right now, Henry is on pace to become just the 14th player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in two consecutive seasons, essentially joining a who’s-who of great running backs from the era:

Henry is in rare two-year rushing company

Most rushing yards per game (YPG) in back-to-back seasons among players who averaged at least 100 yards per game in both seasons, 1970-2020

Rushing YPG2-Year Total
PlayerSeasonsYear 1Year 2Rush YdsYPG
Eric Dickerson1983-84113.0131.63,913122.3
Terrell Davis1997-98116.7125.53,758121.2
O.J. Simpson1975-76129.8107.43,320118.6
Earl Campbell1979-80106.1128.93,631117.1
Shaun Alexander2004-05106.0117.53,576111.8
Barry Sanders1993-94101.4117.72,998111.0
Eric Dickerson1986-87113.8107.33,109111.0
Larry Johnson2005-06109.4111.83,539110.6
Tiki Barber2005-06116.3103.93,522110.1
Edgerrin James2000-01106.8110.32,371107.8
Emmitt Smith1992-93107.1106.13,199106.6
Derrick Henry2019-20102.7117.62,128106.4
Eric Dickerson1987-88107.3103.72,947105.3
LaDainian Tomlinson2002-03105.2102.83,328104.0

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Before Henry, we hadn’t seen a running back pull off the feat since Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs and Tiki Barber of the New York Giants each did it in 2005 and 2006. And you could have been forgiven for thinking we might not have ever seen it again, as the era of the high-workload primary back has given way to backfield committees and an increased focus on using RBs in the passing game rather than handing them the ball. Henry’s numbers are a throwback to an earlier time, and nobody else is really in the same neighborhood this year. Among 2020 rushers, only Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (who missed Week 6 with an injury) is even close to 100 yards per game on the ground; he’s averaging 97.8, which is 11 more than the next-highest rusher (Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders, who is also injured) and nearly 20 yards per game behind Henry. Henry is truly in a class of his own.

And that production is helping Tennessee win games. The Titans are averaging 2.95 EPA per game on the ground so far this season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, which ranks fourth in the NFL behind the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. And they rank second (behind the Kansas City Chiefs) in win probability added on the ground. Henry’s blockers deserve credit for that as well; Tennessee runners are fifth in yards before first contact per rush, with the path being cleared for 3.33 yards per carry before a defender touches the ball carrier. The passing game has clearly been a huge driver of Tennessee’s success, too — QB Ryan Tannehill has the league’s fourth-best Total QBR this season, and the Titans rank second (again, behind K.C.) in passing EPA per game. Henry is far from the only reason that Tennessee is tied for the fourth-best Super Bowl odds this season, according to our prediction model.

But the Tannehill-Henry tandem obviously works great together. Since Tannehill took over as Tennessee’s starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season, the Titans are 14-4 (including the playoffs), with Henry averaging 119.9 rushing yards per game — 35.7 more than any other player — and Tannehill averaging 97.4 passing yards per game off play-action (which ranks second only to Jared Goff of the L.A. Rams at 98.4). By keeping defenses guessing as to whether Henry or Tannehill will hurt them, it’s no surprise that the Titans are the only team to rank among the top five in offensive EPA per game both through the air and on the ground so far this season.

Week 7 should provide an interesting test for Henry and the Titans, in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Pittsburgh ranks second in defensive EPA per game overall and first against the run specifically. Steeler opponents are picking up only 2.03 yards before first contact per run, which could prove an antidote to Tennessee’s run-blocking. But if there’s any running back who stands a chance against Pittsburgh’s front seven, it’s Henry — the closest equivalent the modern game has to the dominating rushers of yesteryear.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 6 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
RkTeamStarting QBQB Rk*Elo RatingProj. RecordMake PlayoffsWin DivisionWin SB
1ChiefsMahomes1170613-398%84%19%
2RavensJackson4165912-4934710
3SeahawksWilson3164012-4936812
4SteelersRoethlisberger10163612-493479
5TitansTannehill6163412-493819
6BuccaneersBrady14161210-680548
7PackersRodgers12159211-583496
8SaintsBrees215919-766385
9RamsGoff1315739-762153
10BearsFoles21157011-585485
1149ersGaroppolo2415628-83862
12BillsAllen9156110-672632
13ColtsRivers1815569-750182
14PatriotsNewton1715448-842301
15RaidersCarr515409-750121
16CardinalsMurray715349-752122
17BrownsMayfield28153110-66261
18BroncosLock3215047-9204<1
19EaglesWentz2214766-9-15252<1
20FalconsRyan1114695-1142<1
21TexansWatson814605-114<1<1
22PanthersBridgewater1514567-9186<1
23VikingsCousins2314555-116<1<1
24ChargersHerbert1914506-108<1<1
25LionsStafford1614427-9132<1
26DolphinsTagovailoa3014187-9147<1
27BengalsBurrow2713784-11-12<1<1
28CowboysDalton2913676-102727<1
29GiantsJones2513524-1299<1
30WashingtonAllen3113485-111312<1
31JaguarsMinshew2013233-13<1<1<1
32JetsDarnold✚2613212-14<1<1<1

*Ranking among Week 7 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 21, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: Pittsburgh-Tennessee is Elo’s top game of the week, but a close second is New England against San Francisco. The teams are on opposite trajectories — the 49ers had an impressive bounceback win over the Rams last week, while the Patriots suffered an exceedingly rare home loss as a favorite against Denver. New England is at home again in this one, and the Pats are 24-9 in Foxborough when coming off a loss since 2001. But they’ll need more from Cam Newton and a moribund passing attack that ranks 28th in EPA per game, against a Niners defense that has slipped in EPA from No. 2 against the pass last season to No. 12 this year. On the other side, the Pats are also down a bit defensively, and Jimmy Garoppolo looked healthy again versus L.A., though our QB ratings still regard him as a middling starter at best. Maybe Jimmy G. can use this opportunity against his former team to notch a second-straight above-average start for the first time since Week 12 in 2019. But we give the Patriots a 54 percent chance to stop the skid here. Elo’s spread: New England -1

Check out our latest NFL predictions.





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Are The Chicago Bears Good Or Just Lucky?


With one NFL Sunday left in the month of October, the Chicago Bears hold sole possession of first place in the NFC North. They’re 5-1 after six games, and FiveThirtyEight’s Elo-based projections give them an 85 percent chance of making the playoffs. Even if they played .500 football the rest of the way, they would still finish 10-6.

So why are some observers labeling their success as “fraudulent”?

The easy answer is they haven’t faced many good teams — and they haven’t won by very much. Their five conquests to date (the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Atlanta Falcons, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers) have a combined win percentage of .379. Given that the Bears have only outscored their opponents by a total of 128-116, predictive metrics like the Simple Ranking System don’t love them. With a weak slate like that, it’s no surprise that opponent-adjusted stats like Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA) aren’t impressed by their performances so far, either.

But winning five of six NFL games is never a complete accident, and there are plenty of concrete football arguments for the Bears being what the scoreboard says they are. They rank seventh in both scoring and yardage defense, thanks to a secondary that’s allowed the lowest completion rate of any team in the NFL. All-Pro edge rusher Khalil Mack has 4.5 sacks as part of a unit that’s tied for 10th-most sacks in the league despite blitzing less often than all but five other teams. They’re an especially good situational defense, allowing the second-lowest third-down conversion rate and lowest red-zone touchdown rate in the league.

These numbers don’t stack up to those of hallowed Bears defenses like the 2006 and 1985 units. But it’s reasonable to believe the 2020 edition will still be tough to score against for the rest of the regular season — and, likely, the playoffs.

The obvious problem is on the other side of the ball, where a quarterback combination of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky has made for one of the league’s most anemic passing attacks. The Bears rank 26th in team completion rate and passer rating, and they sit in 30th in both yards per attempt and yards per completion. As good as their situational defense has been, their situational offense has been nearly that bad: They rank 27th in third-down conversion rate and 26th in red-zone touchdown rate. The passing attack has generated just 17.5 expected points, seventh-worst in the league.

The Great NFL Passing Boom of the 2010s primed football-watching minds to correlate passing success with team success — and if there was an opportunity for defenses to cycle back to ascendance, the rise of do-everything quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson 2.0 seems to have squashed it.

If the NFL is still a pass-first league, just how badly can Chicago’s quarterbacks perform without killing the team’s postseason hopes? Let’s compare what the Bears have gotten from Foles and Trubisky so far with where the bar seems to be.

There have been 60 playoff teams over the past five full NFL seasons, and most of them have been very effective through the air. Last year, eight of the NFL’s top 10 passing offenses made the playoffs.

Here’s where the 2020 Bears stack up against the best, worst and average passing attacks — by adjusted net yards per attempt — from the past five playoff fields:

Chicago’s passing looks like the worst playoff teams

Passing stats for the top five and bottom five 2015-19 playoff teams by adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/Att), plus the 2020 Chicago Bears

TeamYearComp%TD%Int%Yds/AttANY/Att
Bears2020*61.3%5.0%2.9%6.05.1
Top 5 teamsYearComp%TD%Int%Yds/AttANY/Att
Falcons201669.6%7.1%1.3%9.29.0
Chiefs201866.08.62.18.88.9
Patriots201666.95.80.48.18.5
Chiefs201965.65.20.98.18.1
Saints201873.46.41.38.08.1
Bottom 5 teamsYearComp%TD%Int%Yds/AttANY/Att
Panthers201758.5%4.4%3.2%6.65.2
Bills201760.73.42.16.55.2
Broncos201560.73.13.87.05.1
Titans201761.72.83.46.85.1
Texans201659.52.62.75.94.5
YearsComp%TD%Int%Yds/AttANY/Att
Average2015-1965.1%5.2%1.9%7.66.9

*2020 stats through games of Oct. 18.

Adjusted net yards per attempt is calculated as (pass yards + 20*(pass TD) – 45*(interceptions thrown) – sack yards)/(passing attempts + sacks).

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

The Bears are definitely getting more from their passing attack than the worst-throwing recent playoff team, the 2016 Houston Texans. But “more” than Brock Osweiler and Tom Savage were able to contribute to a team that barely won the dire 2016 AFC South is not much.

In fact, if you drop the Bears’ current passing rate stats in with that field of 60, they would rank near the bottom in almost all of them: completion rate (49th), touchdown rate (34th), interception rate (56th), yards per attempt (60th), passer rating (55th) and adjusted net yards per attempt (58th).

But unlike the 2016 Texans, the Bears don’t have a productive tailback, let alone two. Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue gained 1,493 yards for those Texans at a 4.06 per-carry rate, leading that season’s eighth-most-prolific rushing attack. With 2020 Bears starter Tarik Cohen already out for the season, second-year back David Montgomery has managed just 305 yards over six games, averaging 3.7 yards a pop. The team’s No. 2 active rusher? Wideout Cordarrelle Patterson, with just 70 yards.

To stay competitive for the rest of the season — let alone make noise in the playoffs — the Bears will likely have to get better at one of these phases of the game. But if Foles can’t get closer to his top form, Montgomery can’t run more effectively, and the defense can’t find an even higher gear, there’s still one element driving the Bears’ success: fumble luck.

On defense, the Bears have forced four fumbles and recovered three, while on offense, they’ve recovered all six of their own fumbles. All in all, they’ve picked up 81.8 percent of the balls that have hit the ground in their games so far, the highest rate in the NFL. For comparison, the highest recorded full-season recovery rate since 2003 was the 69.8 percent put up by the 2009 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

But whether the Bears have been lucky, good or both, it doesn’t change what’s happened. They’re still 5-1, with remaining games against the 1-5 Texans, 2-3 Detroit Lions and 1-5 Jacksonville Jaguars — and two games against the 1-5 Vikings. Even if their fumble luck regresses a little, and even if they don’t play significantly better, the Bears’ hot start has given them a nearly 50-50 chance to win the division and a 17 percent shot at a first-round bye.

Bears fans probably like those odds, even if the numbers lead everyone else to call them frauds.

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Home Teams Aren’t Winning As Much In College Football This Season. The Big Ten Should Fit Right In.


In the weeks leading up to this strange, limited-capacity season of college football, oddsmakers salivated over the prospect of something akin to a control study for home-field advantage. What role does geography play if crowds are reduced by 75 percent, or if there are no crowds at all?

“I think home-field advantage for everyone may be gone,” Big Ten Network analyst Howard Griffith said in mid-September. So far, he seems to have been right. Home losses have piled up regardless of conference or program pedigree.

Through seven weeks,1 overall home winning percentage (.617) is the lowest at this point in any season since at least 2008. Some of that has to do with the lack of cupcake opponents, given that teams have largely played within their conferences: Only 63 of the 167 home contests played so far in the Football Bowl Subdivision have involved nonconference opponents, for a share of just 37.7 percent; from 2008 through 2019, nonconference games made up 61.4 percent of the home games among the first six games played each season.

If we look just at the home teams favored to win their matchups, they’re also scuffling. According to ESPN Stats & Information Group, home favorites won 78.3 percent of games from 2008 to 2019; this season, they are winning just 70.1 percent, a full 5.7 percentage points lower than any season over that stretch. Even home favorites with a lead entering the fourth quarter are struggling, relatively speaking: Those teams are winning only 86.9 percent of their games, compared with the 2008-19 average of 93.5 percent.

In 2019, SEC home teams won a higher share of their conference games than any Power Five conference’s home teams, but they’re just 14-12 so far in 2020; that includes home losses to unranked teams by ranked LSU, Mississippi State and Tennessee. Only once last season did a ranked SEC program fall at home to an unranked one. This season, top 10 teams have already suffered three home losses to unranked opponents, an occurrence that since 2012 has happened at most seven times over an entire season.

As Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports noted, this downturn comes after two of the four largest home-field advantages on record were produced in the past two seasons.2 All this before two major conferences unlock the gates to public-less venues in the coming weeks.

While team success within friendly confines has nosedived, if the trend holds, it won’t be much of a departure for the Big Ten, which opens play Friday.

In an increasingly offense-ruled sport, no conference in the College Football Playoff era3 has featured worse offensive production by home teams in conference play than the Big Ten, whose home teams rank last in points per drive, score percentage and successful play rate.4 That’s last among ALL Football Bowl Subdivision conferences, not just the Power Five.

And that affects the win column. Over the past 10 seasons, Big Ten home teams have a lower win rate in conference play than any other Power Five conference’s home teams, and compared to all conferences over the past two seasons, only the Mountain West’s home teams have been worse. Since Maryland and Rutgers officially joined the Big Ten prior to the 2014 season, Big Ten road favorites have won a higher percentage of conference games than any other conference’s road favorites.

To assess whether crowd noise has had a measurable impact on offensive performance, FiveThirtyEight turned to expected points added (EPA) per play. And to filter out unbalanced matchups, FiveThirtyEight compared only favored home and away teams in conference play. While all favorites aren’t created equal, this inches the exercise closer to a fairer approximate baseline with which to compare home-and-road splits.

One might suspect that a roaring crowd would adversely affect the communication of play calls, the cadence of snap counts and the general comfort of road team offenses. It hasn’t. In three of the five seasons since the College Football Playoff was introduced,5 Big Ten road favorites generated more EPA per play in conference games than home favorites did. That is not an experience shared by any other major conference. In the SEC, for example, home favorites saw more EPA per play in every single season.

Big Ten favorites have produced a lot on the road

Expected points added (EPA) per play for home favorites minus EPA per play for road favorites by season among the Power 5 conferences

SeasonACCBig TenBig 12Pac-12SEC
2019+0.02-0.05+0.00+0.02+0.04
2018-0.06+0.07+0.07+0.02+0.01
2017+0.05-0.04+0.06+0.16+0.04
2016+0.00+0.05-0.04-0.02+0.07
2015+0.06-0.04-0.03+0.01+0.06
2014+0.04+0.05+0.14-0.01+0.06

Source: ESPN STATS & INFORMATION GROUP

But the good news for the Big Ten is that it will fit right in with the current national landscape, where road is king. This year marks the first since 2005 that EPA per play is higher for favored road teams in conference play than it is for favored home teams, and the split is the widest it’s been since ESPN’s Stats & Information Group began tracking it in 2004.

Recently, Big Ten crowds haven’t helped home teams win close games. Over the past 10 seasons, Big Ten home favorites with a lead of any kind entering the fourth quarter had the lowest win percentage of any conference’s home favorites. And in one-possession games,6 Big Ten road favorites had a .778 win percentage, the second highest rate of any conference and by far the highest of any Power Five conference.

Another way to measure home performance is to turn to betting lines. In the College Football Playoff era, the Big Ten’s home teams rank last among major-conference home teams in cover percentage during conference play.

This is surprising, at least on an anecdotal level. A cursory search will indicate that the Big Ten is home to at least a handful of the most intimidating environments in the sport. It’s a conference that includes the sport’s birthplace and one of the oldest stadiums, the nation’s longest consecutive sellout streak, The Best Damn Band In The Land and whiteout spectacles. That doesn’t even include The Big House.

But in recent years, the Big Ten’s home-stadium notoriety has hardly guaranteed a win for the host. And in 2020, a season in which anything can seemingly happen, the conference will fit right in.



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Will The Best Teams Make For The Best World Series?


In honor of the start out of the 2020 Earth Series, we commit almost this full episode speaking about baseball. We initial crack down how the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays created it to the Slide Common. The matchup favors the Dodgers — our design offers them a 69 per cent prospect to gain the Planet Series. There definitely is tension on them to conclude a 32-12 months championship drought, as perfectly as on stars like Clayton Kershaw and Mookie Betts to verify their value when it definitely counts. But the Rays have to have many extra things to go suitable for them to acquire: They need their bullpen to continue to keep them out of difficulty as an alternative of bailing them out of issues, and they need Randy Arozarena to preserve hitting home operates at an remarkable charge. All our hosts adore the Rays’ design of perform but remain unconvinced that their underdog narrative is as scrappy as Tampa helps make it seem. What the hosts are confident of is that this year, lastly, belongs to the Dodgers. (While they also admit that their predictions have not been all that correct this year.)

But there are other concerns remaining questioned about this Globe Sequence, including no matter if the Rays’ low-budget technique to crew-developing is interesting or in fact relatively harmful to gamers — and even to baseball fandom alone. As this is FiveThirtyEight, we are unsurprisingly supporters of performance-driven determination-earning on the section of entrance workplaces. While the Rays are an extreme case in point of what smaller-market groups have to do in get to contend yr in and year out, it’s not like the Dodgers aren’t also working with sabermetrics. The Rays’ results participating in Moneyball is a lot improved for Tampa’s supporters and the league as a complete than if the Rays resigned by themselves to consistent disappointment — as compact-industry, midtable teams in the English Leading League do. The alternative to the resentment some followers are experience most likely isn’t a misguided type of player-club loyalty on the element of the Rays. It’s baseball house owners opening up their textbooks and exhibiting us all which groups are maximizing their performance out of necessity, and which are actually currently being low cost.

Last but not least, in the Rabbit Gap, Neil requires a look at how dwelling-discipline edge has (or has not) changed over the program of 2020. The results are inconclusive. Baseball and soccer, which experienced the use of their stadiums but fewer followers, remained quite close to their avenge dwelling successful percentages at total capability. The NBA and the WNBA, which competed in bubbles, noticed clearer distinctions in favor of household workforce victories, regardless of enjoying at neutral web-sites. Is home-area gain all about content amenities? Is it more psychological? We would require to wait for an additional pandemic to absolutely shut down sports activities in order to accumulate more sample knowledge, so we hope this stays a mystery for a superior extended though.

What we’re seeking at this 7 days:



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What To Watch For In One Of The Most Intriguing World Series Ever


After a big comeback in one league’s championship series — and an even bigger comeback that wasn’t in the other — the World Series is finally set, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers meeting up for Game 1 tonight in Arlington, Texas. Here are some of the biggest factors that jump out as we look ahead to the Fall Classic:

These are legitimately the two best teams in baseball …

Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but the World Series doesn’t always feature MLB’s two best teams. (Scandalous, I know.) In this case, though, it’s hard to argue that we aren’t seeing the true cream of baseball’s crop on the game’s biggest stage. During the regular season, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles each had the best records in their respective leagues, which is only the fourth time that has happened in a World Series matchup since the wild-card era began in 1994. (The other series that fit the description came in 2013, 1999 and 1995.) That used to occur every year, of course — by definition — but it’s only happened a little over 25 percent of the time since the League Championship Series was introduced in 1969.

According to our team rankings, the Dodgers and Rays also rank first and second in Elo rating, respectively. That makes this only the ninth time that baseball has seen a college-football-esque No. 1-vs.-2 championship matchup in the past 35 years:

No. 1-vs.-2 World Series matchups like this are rare

World Series matchups since 1985 featuring MLB’s Nos. 1 and 2 teams in our pre-series Elo ratings

YearNo. 1 TeamNo. 2 TeamWinner (Series Record)
2020DodgersRays???
2016CubsIndiansNo. 1 (4-3)
2013Red SoxCardinalsNo. 1 (4-2)
2007Red SoxRockiesNo. 1 (4-0)
2004CardinalsRed SoxNo. 2 (4-0)
1999BravesYankeesNo. 2 (4-0)
1995IndiansBravesNo. 2 (4-2)
1991BravesTwinsNo. 2 (4-3)
1989AthleticsGiantsNo. 1 (4-0)

Source: Retrosheet

… but the Dodgers are pretty sizable favorites.

In the list above, the No. 1 team actually lost just as often as it won — sometimes in an unexpected sweep, even. Weird things can happen in baseball’s postseason … but don’t necessarily count on that this time around. With a gap of 45 Elo points separating them from the Rays, the Dodgers are the 15th-biggest favorite in World Series history and are tied for the fifth-biggest since 1969:

The biggest World Series mismatches (on paper)

Biggest gap in pre-series Elo ratings for World Series teams, 1969-2020

FavoriteUnderdog
YearTeamElo RatingTeamElo RatingElo GapOutcome?
1970Orioles1606Reds1538+68Win (4-1)
1998Yankees1602Padres1546+56Win (4-0)
1975Reds1602Red Sox1547+54Win (4-3)
1990Athletics1583Reds1529+54Loss (0-4)
2020Dodgers1609Rays1564+45???
1984Tigers1573Padres1527+45Win (4-1)
2011Rangers1586Cardinals1546+39Loss (3-4)
1986Mets1581Red Sox1543+38Win (4-3)
1985Cardinals1570Royals1532+38Loss (3-4)
1988Athletics1575Dodgers1538+37Loss (1-4)
2006Tigers1555Cardinals1518+37Loss (1-4)
1971Orioles1599Pirates1562+37Loss (3-4)
1995Indians1604Braves1570+34Loss (2-4)
2016Cubs1589Indians1556+33Win (4-3)
2009Yankees1589Phillies1557+33Win (4-2)

Source: Retrosheet

Again, this being baseball, some of the biggest underdogs ended up winning. (Cincinnati’s sweep of the 103-win Oakland A’s in 1990 has to go down as one of history’s most stunning routs, and the Reds were the underdog by just a bit wider Elo margin than the Rays are currently to the Dodgers.) Accordingly, our prediction model gives Los Angeles a 69 percent chance of winning its first title since 1988 — big by baseball standards, but far from a sure thing.

The matchup is a fitting commentary on team-building in 2020.

The Dodgers had baseball’s third-largest payroll this season, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s salary data, trailing only the Houston Astros and New York Yankees. The Rays, meanwhile, had baseball’s third-smallest payroll, ahead of only the Miami Marlins and Pittsburgh Pirates. Going back to 1998 — when MLB expanded to its current 30-team structure — that 25-spot difference in salary ranking between L.A. and Tampa Bay is the biggest for any World Series:

Rich team, poor team

Biggest gap in MLB payroll ranking between two World Series opponents since 1998

Higher-Paid ClubLower-Paid Club
YearTeamPayroll RkTeamPayroll RkDiff.Rich Club Win?
2020Dodgers3Rays2825???
2003Yankees1Marlins2524
2007Red Sox2Rockies2523
2010Giants9Rangers2617
2008Phillies12Rays2917
2014Giants5Royals2116
2013Red Sox3Cardinals1512
1998Yankees2Padres1412
2016Cubs8Indians1810
2015Royals12Mets2210
2018Red Sox1Dodgers98
2017Dodgers4Astros128
2004Red Sox2Cardinals108
2001Yankees1D-backs87
2009Yankees1Phillies76
1999Yankees1Braves76
2002Giants10Angels155
2019Nationals4Astros84
2006Cardinals11Tigers143
2000Yankees1Mets43
2012Tigers7Giants92
2011Cardinals12Rangers142
2005Astros11White Sox132

Source: Baseball-Reference.com

Traditionally, these big salary mismatches haven’t gone well for the poorer team. Of the 10 most lopsided battles on the list above, nine were won by the club with the more expensive talent — the only exception being the 2003 World Series, in which the then-Florida Marlins outdueled the favored Yankees in six games.

But in a larger sense, the Dodgers and Rays both tell us about where the sport has headed over the past few decades. When Tampa Bay made its big leap into contention in 2008, “Moneyball” (the book) was only 5 years old, and the use of analytics for team-building was still more the province of small-market teams like the Rays than big-market ones like the Dodgers. Tampa’s general manager back then? A 31-year-old former financial analyst named Andrew Friedman — who happens to now be the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations.

Not coincidentally, the Dodgers typify the way big-market clubs have subsumed the lessons learned by smaller teams scraping for every edge. Where the late-2000s Rays had Ben Zobrist, Los Angeles now has an army of multi-positional fielders; where ex-Rays manager Joe Maddon was hailed for helping reintroduce the defensive shift to baseball, no team in the regular season shifted more in 2020 than the Dodgers. To the credit of Tampa Bay’s current brain trust, it still managed to build an exceptional all-around team on a shoestring budget. But the Dodgers built one of those, too — while paying Clayton Kershaw, Mookie Betts, Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen more than the Rays’ entire roster combined.

The Rays are relying on slick defense, timely pitching — and the Randy Arozarena Show.

The Rays were not an elite pure hitting team in the regular season, and they’ve struggled to consistently get on base in the playoffs — among the eight teams that made the division series, Tampa Bay ranks seventh in postseason batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. Only three regular Rays hitters have an OPS over .780 in the playoffs: Ji-Man Choi (.952), Manny Margot (.967) and — of course — ALCS MVP Randy Arozarena (1.288). Arozarena’s seven home runs set a new rookie record and are tied (behind Nelson Cruz in 2011, Carlos Beltran in 2004 and Barry Bonds in 2002) for the second-most ever in a single postseason. But the Rays have arguably relied too much on Arozarena and the long ball; 72 percent of their runs in the playoffs have come via the home run, the largest share ever for a pennant-winner going into a World Series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Tampa Bay could stand to get more from some of its flagging hitters — most notably second baseman Brandon Lowe, who carries a dismal .366 postseason OPS after posting a .916 mark during the regular season. But the Dodgers’ pitching won’t be easy to overcome. Among division-series contestants, L.A. pitchers easily have the best fielding independent pitching (FIP) this postseason, with the second-best rates of strikeouts and home runs allowed. Though Arozarena also had great numbers (1.023 OPS) in limited playing time during the regular season, he’ll probably regress to the mean some in the World Series. Will his teammates pick up the slack?

On the other side of the ball, the Rays have relied on their defense to make plays and get the key out at the right moment. Tampa’s pitchers have stranded a playoff-high 85.5 percent of runners on base, and only the Astros had a larger gap than the Rays have had between their ERA (3.36) and FIP (4.65) in the postseason. Both of those stats tend to regress to the mean as well — though we’d also expect the quartet of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, Nick Anderson and Ryan Yarbrough, who combined for a 3.69 regular-season FIP, to do better than their collective 5.75 postseason mark. The real question is how much they can limit the damage from an L.A. lineup that led the majors in regular-season scoring and produced an .850 OPS against the Atlanta Braves in the NLCS, with four regular hitters (Corey Seager, Kiké Hernández, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson) above .970 in the series.

This is another major chapter in Clayton Kershaw’s complicated story.

After losing his lone start of the NLCS, it looked like 2020 might be the latest in a long line of postseason disappointments for Clayton Kershaw. But L.A.’s comeback gives him another shot at redemption. And one start shouldn’t define his playoffs as a whole, anyway. Over the entire postseason, Kershaw is 2-1 with a 3.32 ERA and 3.14 FIP in 19 innings … pretty solid numbers, all told. (For comparison, he had a 3.31 FIP during the regular season.) That’s kind of par for the course, though: Kershaw has not been as bad in the playoffs as we’re often led to believe — he has the same career postseason FIP (3.74) as legendary money pitcher Jack Morris, for instance — yet he has also faltered in some pretty high-profile games. His legacy is complicated, without a doubt, and that fact is certain to come into play sooner or later in this World Series.

Perhaps the bigger postseason question for Kershaw is just how many prime chances he’ll have left to win a ring after 2020. Though he had his best season in three years according to WAR per 162 games, Kershaw will be 33 next season, an area of the aging curve in which pitchers typically see their strikeouts drop and their FIPs rise. And while the Dodgers should still be plenty good next year, more than a few familiar faces from this current quasi-dynasty are set to be free agents after this season, including Pederson, Hernández and Turner. (Kershaw himself has a contract that expires the offseason after next.) It’s hard not to think that this is one of the last, best championship opportunities remaining for the Kershaw-era Dodgers.

It should be a very good World Series.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the Dodgers and Rays’ combined .692 winning percentage is the highest for any World Series in history. That’s in part due to the fact that league-leading records will be more extreme in a smaller sample — and the 2020 season was baseball’s shortest since 1878. But these teams also look good if we look at metrics that are theoretically regressed to account for such a short schedule. If you take the harmonic mean of both teams’ Elo ratings in each World Series, this matchup shows up as the 13th-best in history and the third-best since 1953:

This World Series matchup looks good on paper

Best World Series matchups based on the harmonic mean of pre-series Elo ratings, 1903-2020

FavoriteUnderdog
YearTeamElo RatingTeamElo RatingHarmonic MeanWinner
1942Cardinals1613Yankees16051608.8Cardinals
1911Athletics1605Giants15911597.8Athletics
1906Cubs1635White Sox15621597.5White Sox
1910Cubs1595Athletics15891591.8Athletics
1909Pirates1611Tigers15721591.3Pirates
2018Red Sox1600Dodgers15821591.2Red Sox
1943Cardinals1610Yankees15731591.1Yankees
1953Dodgers1597Yankees15851590.9Yankees
1935Cubs1597Tigers15781587.5Tigers
1939Yankees1622Reds15531586.9Yankees
1931Athletics1589Cardinals15841586.6Cardinals
1995Indians1604Braves15701586.5Braves
2020Dodgers1609Rays15641586.4???
1912Red Sox1592Giants15801585.8Red Sox
2019Astros1593Nationals15791585.6Nationals

Source: Retrosheet

That also squares with the thrills both teams have already provided so far in the postseason. If the twin seven-game league championship series were any indication, we should be in for a treat as the Rays and Dodgers take the field over the next week or so.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.





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Do The WNBA’s Most Improved Players Keep Up Their Success?


The 2020 WNBA season was unlike any other, in its bubble on the campus of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. In just 74 days of games, we saw A’ja Wilson outduel Breanna Stewart for Most Valuable Player, Courtney Vandersloot and Sue Bird set single-game assist records, and many other players surprise us with their improved performance from a season ago. One of the biggest of those surprises was the performance of Atlanta Dream guard/forward Betnijah Laney.

In 2019, Laney had averaged a then-career-high 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds per game for the Indiana Fever, but a few weeks before teams reported to Bradenton this year, the team cut her. A week later, the Atlanta Dream signed Laney, hoping she could bring defensive energy and versatility.

Laney did that and much more, defying the preseason scouting reports that labeled her an offensive afterthought. She started all 22 games for the Dream and averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game en route to winning the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player award.

The MIP award has been given out since 2000, when New York Liberty forward/center Tari Phillips won the inaugural award. Since then, there have been co-MIPs once (Connecticut’s Wendy Palmer and Indiana’s Kelly Miller in 2004), and only one player has won the award multiple times (Leilani Mitchell in 2010 with New York and in 2019 with Phoenix).

But what, exactly, does a player have to do to be Most Improved? And do winners usually use the award as a springboard to even better performances in the next season, or do they regress to their previous level of performance? To answer those questions, we compiled data from Her Hoop Stats on all 22 award winners in their MIP season and the seasons directly before and after.

What is the profile of a Most Improved Player?

Most Improved Players tend to win the award relatively early in their careers. On average, MIPs are in their fourth WNBA season, but eight of the 22 winners (36 percent) have been second-year players.

During their winning season, Most Improved Players played an average of 29.5 minutes per game and averaged 12.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. In 2001, Houston Comets guard Janeth Arcain was the iron woman of this group, averaging 36.0 minutes per game, while Erin Buescher in 2006 (19.6 minutes per game) remains the only player to win the award while averaging less than 20 minutes per game.

On average, winners played 13.4 more minutes per game than in the previous season and recorded 7.5 more points, 2.7 more rebounds and 1.0 more assists. Every MIP increased her statistics in all four categories except for Indiana guard Shavonte Zellous in 2013, whose 1.7 assists per game equaled her 2012 average.

Almost all MIPs got better in every major category

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year before winning the award to the winning season

SeasonPlayerMinutesPointsRebs.Assts.
2020Betnijah Laney+7.5+11.6+0.7+2.3
2019Leilani Mitchell+15.5+8.4+1.6+1.7
2018Natasha Howard+13.9+8.9+4.0+0.3
2017Jonquel Jones+14.4+8.6+8.2+0.9
2016Elizabeth Williams+23.0+8.6+4.9+0.8
2015Kelsey Bone+5.8+6.1+1.0+0.6
2014Skylar Diggins-Smith+8.8+11.6+0.6+1.2
2013Shavonte Zellous+9.0+7.2+0.7+0.0
2012Kristi Toliver+7.9+6.3+1.3+2.0
2011Kia Vaughn+20.0+8.0+5.3+0.8
2010Leilani Mitchell+16.0+6.9+1.4+1.6
2009Crystal Langhorne+14.2+7.2+3.9+0.5
2008Ebony Hoffman+13.6+6.2+3.8+1.0
2007Janel McCarville+7.0+5.9+1.3+0.3
2006Erin Buescher Perperoglou+10.6+6.4+2.6+0.4
2005Nicole Powell+16.7+6.4+1.3+1.3
2004Wendy Palmer+10.5+4.3+2.2+0.4
2004Kelly Miller+16.8+4.6+1.6+1.7
2003Michelle Snow+15.3+5.3+4.0+0.8
2002Coco Miller+21.4+7.6+3.1+2.2
2001Janeth Arcain+5.5+10.1+0.5+1.0
2000Tari Phillips+21.1+9.7+5.9+0.6
Average+13.4+7.5+2.7+1.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

Increased playing time can account for some of the increased production, but MIPs were also generally more efficient on offense. Winners’ effective field-goal percentage increased by an average of 4.2 percentage points, while their player efficiency ratings rose from 13.0 in the previous season — slightly below the league average of 15.0 — to well above average at 18.8. Some winners, such as Arcain and Laney, took on much larger offensive roles, but on average, winners’ usage rates increased by less than 3 percentage points, and five winners actually had lower usage rates than in the previous season.

Finally, offensive and defensive ratings — which indicate the number of points a player scores and allows, respectively, per 100 possessions — have risen steadily since the WNBA’s inception in 1997, making them less informative measures of player effectiveness for this analysis. However, the winners’ net ratings — the difference between their offensive and defensive ratings — show that these players have been an average of 12 points per 100 possessions better in their MIP-winning season than in the season prior.

This year’s candidates

Laney’s minutes increased only modestly from 2019 to 2020 (+7.5) compared to previous award winners, but her leap from 5.6 points per game in 2019 to 17.2 in 2020 was tied with Skylar Diggins-Smith’s 2014 surge as a member of the Tulsa Shock for the largest increase ever among Most Improved Player award winners. She also recorded the largest increase in assists (2.3), narrowly beating out Washington’s Coco Miller (2.2) in 2002, and the second-largest increase in usage rate (9.4 percentage points) behind Arcain (13.0 points) in 2001.

Yet Laney did not run away with the award, winning just 25 of a possible 47 votes (53 percent). Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen, who got 21 votes, was also doing unprecedented things in the WNBA bubble. One season removed from playing fewer than eight minutes per game, Hines-Allen was named to the All-WNBA Second Team and averaged 17.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 assists in 29.9 minutes per game.

Had Hines-Allen won the award instead of Laney, she would have had the largest increase in points per game (14.7) of any winner and the second-largest increases in minutes, rebounds, assists and effective field-goal percentage.

How do MIPs fare the following season?

For the most part, players who won the Most Improved Player award performed at the same level the following season. Their average minutes (-0.9), points (-1.1) and rebounds (-0.4) per game all barely decreased, while their assists per game held steady.

However, those averages could obscure dramatic changes in individual performance, if about half of winners continued to improve their performance while the other half returned to their previous level of performance. Instead, most winners saw their performance plateau in the season after winning Most Improved Player. Fifteen of 21 winners averaged within five minutes per game of their average the season before, and 17 averaged within 4 points of their average in the previous year. Fourteen increased or decreased their rebounding by less than one per game, and 15 did the same in assists.

Some surges were easier to maintain than others

Change in per-game stats for the WNBA’s Most Improved Player from the year of winning the award to the subsequent season

SeasonPlayerMinutesPointsRebs.Assts.
2019Leilani Mitchell+0.2-3.3-0.2+1.4
2018Natasha Howard+5.7+4.9+1.8+1.1
2017Jonquel Jones-8.0-3.6-6.4+0.2
2016Elizabeth Williams-3.1-1.5-0.9+0.2
2015Kelsey Bone-13.6-9.3-2.6-1.1
2014Skylar Diggins-Smith-3.0-2.3+0.2+0.0
2013Shavonte Zellous-3.9-3.7-0.6+0.4
2012Kristi Toliver-1.5-3.4-0.6-1.5
2011Kia Vaughn-5.2-3.7-1.7-0.2
2010Leilani Mitchell-3.4-3.7-0.5-0.9
2009Crystal Langhorne+4.3+4.3+1.8+0.2
2008Ebony Hoffman-1.1-0.5-1.9-0.3
2007Janel McCarville+5.2+3.3+0.6+1.0
2006Erin Buescher Perperoglou+8.1+1.6+2.2+1.2
2005Nicole Powell-2.8-1.1+0.3+0.0
2004Wendy Palmer+2.1+0.6+0.2+0.1
2004Kelly Miller-1.2+0.0-0.7-0.7
2003Michelle Snow-1.4-0.3+0.0-0.2
2002Coco Miller+4.2+3.2+0.2+0.0
2001Janeth Arcain-1.1-7.1-0.3-0.2
2000Tari Phillips+1.2+1.5+0.0+0.2
Average-0.9-1.1-0.4+0.0

Source: Her Hoop Stats

One recent exception to this rule is Seattle Storm forward Natasha Howard. Howard won Most Improved Player along with a WNBA title in 2018, averaging 13.2 points and 6.4 rebounds with a player efficiency rating (PER) of 22.2, 12th-best in the league. The following season, with Seattle stars Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird sidelined by injuries, Howard took her game to an MVP level, ranking in the top seven in the WNBA with 18.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and a 24.0 PER.

Who might win MIP in 2021?

Several players had stat lines in 2020 close to the average for a pre-MIP season and could be poised for a breakout in 2021. Here are a few of those candidates:

Kennedy Burke, Indiana Fever: In her first season playing in new head coach Marianne Stanley’s system, the second-year guard averaged 7.2 points and 1.1 assists in 18.3 minutes per game. Burke had 23 points and 17 points in two games against the WNBA champion Seattle Storm, showing that she can be a scoring threat against even the toughest defenses.

Te’a Cooper, Los Angeles Sparks: The rookie guard averaged 7.0 points and 2.0 assists in 17.2 minutes per game this season and could see much more playing time if the Sparks don’t retain one or more of Chelsea Gray, Seimone Augustus and Riquna Williams, who are all unrestricted free agents this offseason. (Cooper must also re-sign with the Sparks, but the team has exclusive negotiating rights.)

Lauren Cox, Indiana Fever: The No. 3 overall pick in the 2020 draft had an underwhelming rookie season, playing in only 14 games and averaging 3.6 points and 3.3 rebounds. If she’s fully healthy next year after missing time this season because of COVID-19 and a knee injury, she and young center Teaira McCowan could be the nightmare for opponents that many have been anticipating since Cox was drafted.

Sophie Cunningham, Phoenix Mercury: Like Cooper, Cunningham could be poised to play more minutes next season depending on what Phoenix general manager Jim Pitman decides about free agent guards Diana Taurasi, Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Shey Peddy and Yvonne Turner. Cunningham averaged 5.0 points and 0.8 assists this season, but she scored nearly 2,200 points in her college career at Missouri and is a much better 3-point shooter than her 23.5 percent accuracy this season suggests.



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Aaron Rodgers Has A Bad Day, The Titans’ Offense Keeps On Chugging, And The Bears Continue To Confound


sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, sports editor): Week 6 is in the books save for two games to be played today: the regularly scheduled Monday Night Football matchup between the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals AND the rescheduled game featuring the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Fun fact: After tonight, Kansas City will have played six games this season, and only two of those will have been on Sundays.

The Chiefs and Bills face big tests in their matchup, as other top-tier teams did this weekend — with varying outcomes. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans stayed undefeated, though they took very different routes to get there, while the previously unbeaten Green Bay Packers were trounced by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Let’s start with the Packers: How surprised were you by that loss?

joshua.hermsmeyer (Josh Hermsmeyer, NFL analyst): I was shocked by how poorly Aaron Rodgers performed after his Hingle McCringleberry touchdown celebration was taken away from him.

Salfino (Michael Salfino, FiveThirtyEight contributor): I was shocked by Rodgers being so bad, too. But Rodgers is saying they needed a thorough whipping. What’s he going to say, though?

neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): If this is the Bucs’ defense, Tom Brady will feel at home compared with his late-era Pats teams. They DOMINATED defensively.

Salfino: Rodgers was thoroughly abused. And it was shocking to me after watching the Bucs’ game last week, against Chicago, that the Packers couldn’t lay a glove on Tom Brady. Maybe the Bears’ pass rush is that good.

joshua.hermsmeyer: It was Rodgers’s third game this season with an off-target throw percentage of 16 percent or more, so perhaps those throws were bound to catch up to him.

sara.ziegler: Rodgers also seemed to be suffering from not having a good No. 2 option to throw to.

neil: They had been making due without Davante Adams, though — then he comes back and Rodgers struggles badly.

Salfino: I figured those struggles in prior weeks were due to the absence of Adams. But maybe he’s just feasted against bad defenses mostly.

sara.ziegler: They’re clearly missing Allen Lazard. (My Iowa State reference for the week, guys.)

neil: Gotta sneak that in somehow.

Salfino: Sara, what’s the break-even point on soybeans?

neil: 😂

sara.ziegler: LOLOL — if I didn’t know that before last week, I sure do now.

neil: I do think we have to acknowledge that the Bucs’ D might also be good. It didn’t look amazing against the Chargers or Bears, but otherwise it has had some pretty impressive games — none better than this one.

sara.ziegler: And Brady played well! Nice to see the Tom-to-Gronk connection restored.

neil: Gronk got his jersey filthy and everything.

Salfino: Rob Gronkowski’s play was more shocking to me than the Packers’ performance. I thought he was basically an in-line blocker now. He sort of looked like the Gronk of old.

And Ronald Jones gives Brady a running threat, which I think he needs now. Jones seems explosive. He looks like a second-round pick suddenly.

neil: Ronald won the Jones-vs.-Jones RB matchup decisively Sunday.

sara.ziegler: We haven’t talked about the Steelers much this year — I had been a little suspect of their opposition up to this week. But they beat a Browns team that was itself coming off a good win. What do you guys make of the Steelers so far this year?

neil: They seem like you might have expected the best-case scenario to be going into the season: still a great defense, and a much-improved passing game with Big Ben back.

Salfino: I think that the Steelers are generating enough points to mask the obvious fact that Ben Roethlisberger is no longer the same QB. This is not remotely an explosive passing offense, despite a lot of wide receiver talent.

neil: I’m not sure it needs to be, though. He just needed to be better than Mason Rudolph and Duck Dodgers (or whatever his name was) for them to improve a lot.

Salfino: Sure, the passing game is much improved from last year, though it’s much worse than it was in 2018.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Part of the lack of explosion comes from Ben’s inability — or lack of desire — to run play-action. The Steelers are once again last in the league in the best play type in football.

neil: Why do you think that is, Josh? Just that it clashes with his QB style?

joshua.hermsmeyer: Some have speculated that he doesn’t like to turn his back to the defense. And honestly, I can’t really blame a QB for that. But play-action is a lot to give up.

Salfino: Maybe this is meaningful regarding play-action? (Note that this is old data.)

I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference in play-action under center vs. in shotgun. I can’t imagine that play-action works as well in shotgun.

neil: You’re right this season, Mike:

According to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the average QBR for play-action under center is 76.2; for shotgun, it’s 65.1. (With the usual caveats about sample size and selection bias, etc. etc.)

Salfino: If only I weren’t color blind:

neil: Intuitively, it makes sense. Although the quality of the runner doesn’t seem to improve play-action effectiveness, the credibility of the threat to run in general does.

(And the time you have to recover if you overcommit.)

Salfino: In shotgun, a defense with the run would seem to me to be in wait-and-see mode. Again, intuitively.

joshua.hermsmeyer: The Steelers would be pretty scary if they did run more play-action, so I think their division-mates are quite happy they don’t run more of it.

sara.ziegler: OK, so are you buying or selling the Steelers going forward?

Salfino: I’m buying their defense. The Steelers offense is still at least fine. To me, they’re the rich man’s Bears.

neil: Yeah. I’m selling if the question is whether they are Super Bowl favorites now. But they look solid.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Our model has them as the fourth-best team in the league, and I think that’s about right. Though I have some nagging worries about Baltimore at No. 2 if their passing offense doesn’t improve.

So the Steelers could ascend.

Salfino: I can see the Steelers either beating every team (except the Chiefs) or losing to them. To get to be a real favorite, Roethlisberger and their passing game needs to find their 2018 form.

neil: The Tennessee game on Sunday should be VERY interesting.

sara.ziegler: What a good segue, Neil.

neil: Haha

I aim to please!

sara.ziegler: The Titans had to withstand a furious comeback from the Houston Texans to win in overtime and stay undefeated. Are the Titans actually any good?

Salfino: What do we make of the Titans’ insane red-zone efficiency? What do you do when a stat that screams regression refuses to regress?

neil: Derrick Henry probably helps with that. But traditionally, that stat does regress pretty hard to the mean.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Agreed, I wouldn’t expect it to continue. But to me the biggest crack in the Titans’ armor is their defense: They’re allowing 6.2 yards per play, 28th in the league.

Salfino: Arthur Smith has to be the hottest coordinator in the league when it comes to the coaching carousel, right?

As Josh says, their offense is carrying them.

neil: Kind of like the anti-Steelers, who are 5-0 more because of their defense.

(Although I think the Titans’ D is worse than the Steelers’ offense is middling.)

Salfino: They’re also lucky — tied for seventh in point differential.

sara.ziegler: Well, I’ll ask the same question I did with the Steelers: Are you buying or selling the Titans?

joshua.hermsmeyer: I’m buying the Titans, even if they have a system QB. Their offense does everything just right in my view.

sara.ziegler: Interesting!

Salfino: I always buy the good offenses, and I think the Titans — with the tandem of Henry and Ryan Tannehill — are very good on offense. But the injury to tackle Taylor Lewan is a problem. Fox’s Jay Glazer says he tore his ACL.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Yikes.

neil: Oooof. Yeah. And Ryan Tannehill playing well is so important to them going forward. Gotta protect him — he has the third-lowest sack rate of any QB this year.

Salfino: Tennessee’s OL is so good. They’re the new Cowboys.

And look at Tannehill’s sack rate historically. This has been transformative. Sacks are basically punts.

sara.ziegler: Gotta admit, I was not expecting you all to be so high on the Titans.

A team that almost loses to the Vikings does not seem great to me! (The Seahawks excluded.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: LOL

neil: I can no longer make excuses for the Vikings. My goodness.

sara.ziegler: My self-care in 2020 is not watching Vikings games.

Salfino: Are the Vikings in the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes? Kirk Cousins had a terrible first half. They may be heading for a divorce.

sara.ziegler: Anyway, let’s talk about the one-loss teams that won this week: the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears. We expected the Ravens to be in roughly this position; we, uh, did not expect that of the Bears. What is going on in Chicago?

neil: I would love to credit Nick Foles, but it’s really just the defense. This is the same Bears Formula as ever.

Salfino: I think these teams are very similar, along with the Steelers. I don’t really believe in any of their offenses, which seems crazy given how the Ravens are scoring. It’s just that Baltimore’s passing game is practically nonexistent.

neil: I guess Foles has a positive VOMiT: Value Over Mitch Trubisky.

sara.ziegler: OMG

Salfino: That’s Undefeated in 2020 Mitch Trubisky.

It’s funny how there seems to be an NFL rule that when the Bears are good, their defense has to carry them.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Even their defense hasn’t been dominant, though. They’re sixth in yards per play allowed, which is good, but it doesn’t explain that 5-1 record. They’ve just been weirdly lucky, and it’s why I think they’re the most fraudulent five-win team in the league (small group, but still).

Salfino: That’s quasi-dominant, Josh. It passes for dominant in 2020. The key for them is that they get pressure without blitzing. Their four-man rush is the best in the game. This makes playing defense much easier.

neil: The Bears and Bills stand apart among the potentially fraudulent one-loss teams, for sure.

Bears: Bad offense, good defense. Bills: Bad defense, good offense.

sara.ziegler: Interesting comparison to the Bills, Neil. I found this tweet from Aaron Schatz instructive:

neil: If the Bears and Bills merged their best parts, they might be Super Bowl favorites. If they merged their worst parts, they’d be the Jets.

sara.ziegler: Hahahahaha

Salfino: That’s an interesting tweet. At this stage of the season, I think I’d rather be predictably good than descriptively good (by wins and losses). Maybe this is nerdy.

neil: Never too nerdy!

Salfino: What do you guys think about that question? Is it better to be 5-1 on paper or in the standings now?

neil: I agree that it’s better to be good in the predictive stats now. Get me at least halfway through the season with good descriptive stats, though, and I’m in decent shape.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Aaron is right, I guess, that wins are better than losses, but I agree with Mike. I’d much rather be the team coming up than the one that knows it’s just been barely getting by and gotten all the good bounces.

That seems like a special kind of hell in the NFL.

neil: Although I will say the flip-side — 1-5 but good on paper — isn’t a nice place to be either.

Salfino: Is there a team like that?

neil: The Texans? LOL.

(No.)

Salfino: The Texans are another one of the good-offense, no-defense teams. This is a 2020 trend.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Maybe the Texans are substantially better than their record, but who knows.

neil: The Patriots are probably the best sub-.500 team.

sara.ziegler: The Patriots game was the other big surprise to me this week.

neil: We’re definitely not used to seeing the Patriots lose at home to a team like Denver.

sara.ziegler: They’re under .500! 2020 is wild.

Salfino: The Patriots are not good on offense. What’s happened to them after playing Seattle in Week 2 has been shocking. Cam Newton’s throwing was ghastly. They lost without giving up a TD after being 39-0 when that happened under Bill Belichick.

neil: That is a shocking stat. (Not that they had been so good, but that they couldn’t continue it Sunday.)

joshua.hermsmeyer: I wanted them to pass more, but as I look at their numbers, their pass EPA per play for the game was -0.35 vs -0.04 per rush. They threw short and did so ineffectively, which is pretty hard to do.

Salfino: And Denver’s defense was banged up and bad. Cam was throwing the ball into the ground 5 yards in front of his receiver, 10 yards away.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Makes you wonder if he’s fully healthy.

neil: That’s what I was thinking, too. Though he wasn’t exactly the reason they won vs. Vegas earlier, either.

joshua.hermsmeyer: Cam is a special player. He can pass you into the red zone and then run the ball in all by himself from there. But when he’s off, he really looks off.

sara.ziegler: It does seem like the messy schedule of the past couple of weeks might have caught up with the Patriots.

Salfino: That’s a good point, Sara. Who knows what we make out of this season of stops and starts.

neil: If any coach would have prepared a team to deal with the COVID craziness, you’d think it would be Belichick. But this seems to be bigger than even he can manage through.

In fact, maybe the “make a new game plan for each opponent” strategy is the wrong one for 2020, given that you might not really know who the next opponent even is!

joshua.hermsmeyer: That’s a really interesting point, Neil. I think you’re right.

Salfino: Good point. Especially with a new QB. And really a new offense. They probably don’t have that requisite mastery of all their plays.

neil: Either way, Tom definitely won the breakup on Sunday.

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The NHL Says ‘Hockey Is For Everyone.’ Black Players Aren’t So Sure.


As Washington Capitals forward Devante Smith-Pelly sat in the penalty box during a game at Chicago’s United Center in February 2018, he listened as a group of white fans chanted “basketball, basketball, basketball” in his direction. The Blackhawks fans taunting Smith-Pelly, who is Black, were making their position clear: Hockey isn’t for everyone, and it’s especially not for Black people.

Willie O’Ree, who became the NHL’s first Black player in 1958 when he took the ice for the Bruins in a game against the Montreal Canadiens, faced racist abuse throughout his career. When Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds was on the Flyers in 2011, he had a banana hurled at him by a fan during an exhibition game in London, Ontario. After Washington Capitals forward Joel Ward knocked the Bruins out of the 2012 playoffs with a Game 7 overtime winner, he faced a barrage of racist abuse by Boston fans on social media. When New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, who is Black, participated in what he must have believed would be an ordinary question-and-answer session with fans on Zoom earlier this year, he was repeatedly abused with racist taunts. In a candid Players’ Tribune essay, former Calgary Flames forward Akim Aliu, who is Nigerian, detailed instances of racist abuse that he suffered during his playing career — from teammates and from his own coach.

The list of racist incidents in hockey is too long to detail in full, and it’s not limited to the professional game — they are depressingly common at the youth level, too. After the incident in Chicago in 2018, Smith-Pelly reflected on how little has changed since O’Ree broke the color barrier more than 60 years ago.

“[O’Ree] had to go through a lot, and the same thing has been happening now, which obviously means there’s still a long way to go,” Smith-Pelly told the AP. “If you had pulled a quote from him back then and us now, they’re saying the same thing, so obviously there’s still a long way to go in hockey and in the world if we’re being serious.”

The hockey world was forced again to confront its own reaction to racism this summer. When players on the Milwaukee Bucks decided not to take the court for an NBA playoff game on Aug. 26 in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, they inspired other players across sports to do the same. In doing so, they made it clear to league officials, team owners and a nation confronting police violence against Black people that they believe Black lives matter. But as basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls and tennis balls were put away in protest, hockey pucks conspicuously were not.

Hours after the Bucks refused to play, and after players in other leagues joined that protest — the intention of their collective action unequivocal — skaters from the Boston Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning gathered at center ice at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto for the beginning of Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series as if nothing were happening outside of the NHL’s two playoff bubbles.

While play stopped in other leagues that day, the NHL didn’t move its slate of games, instead choosing to acknowledge what Kenosha police did to Blake with a 27-second “moment of reflection” before the Bruins and Lightning game while the jumbotron lit up with the words “End Racism.” Even that short display was more than the league spared for a game between the Colorado Avalanche and the Dallas Stars later that evening, which proceeded without any acknowledgement at all.

“You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this,” said Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild.

Dave Sandford / NHLI via Getty Images

Not everyone associated with the NHL remained silent, of course. A number of current and former players tweeted messages of support to the Bucks and the NBA more broadly. Some white players took that stand, including retired goaltender Roberto Luongo, but nonwhite players were at the forefront, including San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane, who is Black, and Minnesota Wild defenseman Matt Dumba, who is of Filipino descent. Aliu tweeted his support to NBA, WNBA and MLB players, and he asked the NHL, “where you at?” Dumba, who was the first NHL player to take a knee during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner when he did so before a game in August, even took to the airwaves in Vancouver to explain that the onus to speak out against racism should not always fall on Black players and players of color.

“You can’t keep coming to the minority players every time there’s a situation like this,” Dumba said on The Program. “The white players in our league need to have answers for what they’re seeing in society as well right now, too, and where they stand in making a change, doing good for the league. Because I know that there’s a lot of them that are good people — there’s a lot of good people in hockey. But the silence is as bad as the violence.”

After an evening of mostly silence from the league and its teams, the NHL and its overwhelmingly white workforce finally came around to the idea that players in other sports might be onto something.

Players in the Western Conference bubble faced the media on Aug. 27 to announce the postponement of games that day and the next, with a plan to resume play the following day. The announcement came from Vegas Golden Knights forward Ryan Reaves and Avalanche forward Pierre Edouard-Bellemare, who are both Black, Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri, who is of Lebanese descent, and Dallas Stars forward Jason Dickinson and Vancouver Canucks forward Bo Horvat, who are both white. By all accounts, the action was led by the players and not the league.

There’s ample evidence that the NHL knows it has a racism problem. Its “Hockey Is For Everyone” campaign is proof of this; its slate of Black History Month commercials — which featured no Black players in 2020 — is proof of this; its mobile history museum, which tells the story of the Coloured Hockey League, an all-Black league that formed in Nova Scotia in 1895 and is responsible for the invention of the slapshot and the butterfly goalie stance, is proof of this; the white paper it produced in 2018 in conjunction with the Brookings Institution — which acknowledged that demographics in North America are shifting, that 44 percent of American millennials are not white and that the league needs to get better at reaching out to Black people and people of color — is proof of this too.

Hockey’s fan base isn’t very diverse

Share of major or casual American fans of a given sport who identified as a given race or ethnicity, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Non-Hispanic
SportHispanicBlackOther2+ RacesWhite
Hockey6.8%6.5%2.8%6.8%77.1%
Golf6.717.63.32.270.2
Baseball17.46.63.64.268.2
Football12.214.44.43.965.1
NASCAR12.816.72.34.064.2
Basketball18.624.35.55.945.6
Soccer46.79.37.32.634.1

Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020.

But the reality is that the league’s fans are overwhelmingly white, skew conservative and are more wealthy than fans of other professional sports leagues. As support for the Black Lives Matter movement had waned among white Americans, it’s fair to assume it was waning among the NHL’s largely white audience, too. And minority representation in the league remains minuscule: Less than 5 percent of the league’s players are Black or people of color, and it has hired only one Black head coach — out of 377 total coaches — in its 102-year existence.

Hockey fans aren’t very liberal

Among those who responded to the question, share of major or casual American fans of a given sport who identified with a given political affiliation, according to a FiveThirtyEight/Ipsos poll

Share identifying as…
SportA DemocratA RepublicanAn IndependentSomething else
Soccer41.0%23.1%30.1%5.8%
Basketball39.926.926.17.0
Football33.934.626.05.6
Baseball30.438.424.86.4
Golf23.138.631.86.5
Hockey22.135.436.56.0
NASCAR19.239.835.35.7

Poll of 1,109 Americans was conducted May 5-11, 2020.

A cohort of current and former Black players and players of color within the NHL isn’t waiting any longer for the league to act. Players including Kane, Dumba, Aliu, Kadri and Simmonds joined together to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) in June in an effort to end racism and promote diversity at all levels of the sport. Soon after the NHL balked at the opportunity to show its support for Black lives, the HDA issued a press release detailing how it intends to upend racial inequities in the NHL and hockey more broadly. The HDA’s plan begins with increasing the share of Black personnel hired by the NHL and its member franchises — at the executive level as well as in hockey-related and non-hockey-related roles.

In addition to increasing diversity in the league’s workforce, the HDA proposed that it should be tasked with selecting at least 50 percent of the NHL’s Executive Inclusion Council (EIC), a group of team owners, presidents and general managers whose mandate is to ensure diversity and inclusion efforts are taken seriously throughout the league. Doing so would “ensure that the voices of our Black, Indigenous and racialized players are heard and that they have an opportunity to help change the culture of the league.”

The HDA also asked the NHL to implement a mandatory anti-racism and unconscious bias training education program for all league employees. The HDA committed to funding social justice initiatives that target racism and provide justice for Black, Indigenous and racialized communities; grassroots hockey development programs that increase access and provide support to BIPOC players at the youth level; and anti-racism and unconscious bias education programs in amateur hockey leagues across North America.

Days after the HDA issued its press release, the NHL and the NHLPA (the league’s players union) responded with a joint press release announcing its plans to implement anti-racism efforts, which include mandatory diversity and inclusion training for all players and NHLPA personnel. The NHL and NHLPA also announced plans to work with the HDA to “establish and administer a first-of-its-kind grassroots hockey development program to provide mentorship and skill development for BIPOC boys and girls in the Greater Toronto Area,” with stated plans for a similar program based in the U.S. to come at a later date.

Notably, the NHL did not commit to concrete numbers regarding the hiring of Black executives, hockey personnel or non-hockey personnel, however, instead saying that it is “commissioning an outside audit of these efforts” while “working with The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) on a private assessment of our current employee pool.” Nor did it agree to allowing the HDA to select at least 50 percent of its EIC, which is majority white.

The NHL’s piecemeal commitment to the HDA’s proposal seems to have precipitated the end of the nascent working relationship between the two organizations. The HDA recently announced that it would operate separately from the NHL, stating that the league “is not prepared to make any measurable commitments to end systemic racism in hockey,” and that it “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game.”

Members of the Black Girl Hockey Club visit the NHL’s Black Hockey History Tour mobile museum in February 2019.

John Russell / NHLI via Getty Images

Current and former players aren’t the only forces putting pressure on the league to take diversity and inclusion seriously. Renee Hess, who founded the Black Girl Hockey Club (BGHC) two years ago as a support network for women of color who enjoy hockey, told The New York Times that the league needs to include more people of color on its new committees “so that true change can happen.” The BGHC recently launched its “Get Uncomfortable” campaign, which aims to develop “a comprehensive set of recommendations on how all entities involved in hockey, at all levels, can meaningfully contribute to the movement against discrimination and oppression of BIPOC communities in society.”

The campaign’s ultimate goals are to make hockey a welcome space for Black girls and BIPOC communities, increase diversity in employment at all levels of the sport and educate the hockey world on issues of social justice and allyship while centering Black women, women of color, BIPOC leaders and anti-racism experts. Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs — who is Black and who has been instrumental in expanding the NHL’s “Hockey Is for Everyone” initiatives — told The New York Times that Hess is “bringing a new perspective to all dimensions of our inclusion efforts.”

Stopping racism in sports, let alone the broader world, is obviously no easy task. But there are tangible steps that the NHL could take to make the league, and the sport, more equitable and inclusive. One positive change the NHL could bring about is subsidizing equipment costs and league fees at the youth level. Hockey is among the most expensive youth sports to play — some families spend as much as $19,000 a year on equipment, league fees and travel. In the U.S., where the wealth gap between white and Black families is as wide as it was in the 1960s, that high barrier to entry is a big reason why hockey is mostly played by white people. And that lack of diversity and inclusion is mirrored in the racial makeup of the NHL, both on and off the ice.

When Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times by Kenosha police, it didn’t register with white players, coaches or personnel inside the NHL’s bubbles until players in other leagues — and the Black players and players of color in their own league — forced it to register. When presented with a chance to show support for Black lives, most white people inside the NHL faltered. They remained silent until it became clear that their silence was untenable; they didn’t speak until it was clear that it was safe to do so. The NHL’s Black players and players of color didn’t have that luxury.

Neil Paine contributed research.

CORRECTION (Oct. 19, 2020, 6:30 p.m.): A previous version of this article referred to Wayne Simmonds as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. He left the Sabres and signed on Oct. 9 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.





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Freddie Freeman Took The Leap. Now The Braves Are One Game Away From Doing The Same.


The Atlanta Braves are on the cusp of a important postseason upset. That is due in no small component to first baseman Freddie Freeman, who entered the time as just one of the game’s very best hitters but has achieved a new level in 2020 — even right after overcoming COVID-19 this earlier summer. In fact, few hitters have ever enhanced as deep into a vocation as Freeman has.

Freeman homered in the very first two game titles of the Nationwide League Championship Sequence towards the Los Angeles Dodgers, and went 2-for-5 with two RBIs in Recreation 4, to aid the Braves get a 3-1 direct. It’s the form of hitting the Braves will need to get over the Dodgers, who entered the NLCS as the favorite to win the Environment Series. (The Dodgers’ probabilities to gain have fallen from 54 % to 14 p.c in our model the Braves, who entered the series with the least expensive World Collection odds of the remaining groups, increased their odds from 12 per cent to 39 percent, as of Friday afternoon.)

The superior information for the Braves is that the now good Freeman has managed to make improvements to his hitting abilities much more than most major league gamers in this shortened time, particularly his energy and call amount. Freeman, extensive a good fastball hitter, can strike fastballs at an elite amount, as the Dodgers and starting pitcher Walker Buehler realized in Match 1.

This calendar year, Freeman experienced the fourth-very best batting ordinary vs . fastballs, and the sixth-best regular against fastballs that traveled 95 mph or more quickly. And alternatively than see his bat slow down as he enters his 30s — which is frequently around the time hitters achieve the downslope of the getting old curve — Freeman has been about four occasions much more successful versus fastballs this period in contrast to last season. He posted a profession-finest batting ordinary towards the pitch (.478), nevertheless he faced about a person-third as lots of fastballs in the shortened 2020 time as he averaged in the 9 seasons prior, and he addresses practically the whole strike zone with higher than-normal hitting.

Entering this period, just one of the few pitch forms Freeman hit unevenly, from a operates-produced standpoint, was the split-fingered fastball. However his efficiency in opposition to the pitch fell beneath league regular in 5 of his initial 10 seasons, he’s higher than the average this yr. Dodgers pitcher Tony Gonsolin threw Freeman a low-and-within splitter in Sport 2, and Freeman was in a position to bring his arms in and crush the ball for a two-operate residence operate, giving the Braves an early 2- guide.

So what changed? Freeman stands at 6 feet, 5 inches, but he’s constantly had a compact, whip-like swing. Certainly, Freeman doesn’t show up to have modified his swing a lot at all from his 1st hit in the majors. That swing has developed consistent effects for more than a ten years: Given that his initial complete period in 2011, Freeman ranks ninth among the situation players in wins earlier mentioned substitute. As an alternative, Freeman is merely hitting the ball tougher. His calendar year-over-year average exit velocity gain of 2.7 mph ranks 16th out of 485 qualifying key league hitters this time. He’s also lifting additional batted balls into the air, enabling him to strike for a lot more electrical power. His 12 months-about-12 months ground-ball charge of decrease of 6.7 share factors ranks 28th in the majors. Freeman also ranks 30th in yr-around-year slugging gains. All a few enhancements rank amongst the top rated decile of qualifying players.

The high-quality of batted balls he’s lifted into the air were bettered by only two players, in accordance to OPS, this period: José Abreu of the White Sox and teammate Marcell Ozuna.

Freeman has also added get in touch with means. He’s cut his swinging-strike level by 3.1 percentage points in the typical period, tied for the 14th-greatest enhancement in the majors. Freeman’s strikeout amount was a career-minimal 14.1 p.c this time, and it’s been even lessen in the postseason (7.3 % as a result of 4 online games of the NLCS). Freeman is crushing pitches he swings at in part due to the fact he’s been a lot more selective. His swing amount on pitches out of the strike zone is a career-lower 24.1 per cent.

It’s also attainable that Freeman is just healthier this yr immediately after getting operation previous fall to remove bone spurs in his elbow. Freeman instructed MLB.com that this year was “the to start with time in nine many years I have not experienced any soreness in the offseason.” His enhanced exit velocity and lessened ground-ball amount could also signify that Freeman has enhanced his capability to strike the ball extra out in front of the plate, which is the place peak bat speed and power are observed.

In all, Freeman has simply been greater, and at a level in his career when gamers not often boost. When it is demanding in some approaches to assess a shortened year, some competencies like walk rate, strikeout fee, contact price and groundball price stabilize with 250 or fewer plate appearances. (Freeman built 262 regular-time plate appearances this year). Preferably we’d like a much larger sample to assess stats like OPS, but it’s attainable that Freeman has made traditionally exceptional advancement this time. Due to the fact 1900, only 9 competent key league hitters have enhanced their OPS far more than Freeman has from their 10th to 11th significant league seasons — and none of these hitters experienced a far better 10th occupation time to boost on. And even though this season was just 60 games, it was the next-finest 60-sport stretch of non-overlapping games of Freeman’s career within just a year, in terms of WAR.

Possessing loved an MVP-caliber common season, his torrid hitting has continued into the postseason when the Braves need it most. And to complete off the Dodgers, the Braves want Freeman to continue to keep participating in as well as he ever has.

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